Question – Have you ever had a book that you have held on to for years and years, which has been taken with you from new home to new home and yet remains fairly neglected and seldom taken off the shelves?
Meet my copy of “The 22 Letters”.
I read this book when I was about 10 years old and must have really enjoyed it because it remained on my bookshelves, staying at my parents house when I was at college but then coming with me and staying on my shelves for a considerable number of years (ok it’s 40+). The vast majority of my collection of Puffin books ended up in various charity shops, jumble sales or were given away but for some reason this stayed and I just never got round to reading it again.
Clive King is most famous for his “Stig Of The Dump” and this book for a time was a fixture in Primary schools where I taught for many years and it is still a well-loved children’s book and one I knew well. But it wasn’t my copy of “Stig” that hung around, it was this. Recently, curiosity got the better of me, why couldn’t I throw this book away? Why had it survived every book cull? It certainly wasn’t for the murky cover illustration. I had to re-read it to see why it was that I had this intuitive need not to part with it. My memories I had of it were that it was quite a demanding book for me as a young reader. I read it quite slowly, it seemed to be my “reading book” for quite some time. At that age I was keen on adventure and authors such as Willard Price, Malcolm Saville peppered my reading alongside my much loved children’s classics, a number of which have already featured in this blog, so I reckoned that it must have been a book that I was particularly thrilled by.
Children’s adventure books tend not to have dated very well. There’s Enid Blyton of course, but they seemed dated when I read them and their continuing popularity is curious, but do children still read Willard Price whose books entitled “Safari Adventure”, and “Amazon Adventure” are likely to read very differently now with our very different world view? I was a little concerned what I would find in the pages of King’s 1966 book. I checked Amazon – was it still, like Stig, even in print, or had it been quietly withdrawn as tastes changed? Well, it’s no longer in print but copies are around of a similar vintage to my own.
First surprise was the dense and highly descriptive text, which just doesn’t appear in books for children of this age today. It wasn’t going to be the thrill-a-minute I had anticipated. Three brothers leave their home in Gebel (modern Lebanon) around 1500BC for different reasons. One of the brothers, a soldier, discovers horses can be ridden, one, a sailor, discovers navigation by stars and the third, a young scribe, is ultimately responsible for the early alphabet (not a plot spoiler because the clue is in the title). This is one talented family!
Pace-wise, for much of the book it is surprisingly leaden with separate chapters devoted to each of the brothers (and to their sister, who, – remember it is written in 1966- stays at home). It is very much helped in the last third by a dramatic earthquake and volcanic eruption which seems to be, for the characters involved, the end of the world. The pace is certainly upped here and the persevering reader is rewarded. Although I do not remember this section it must have been this which made that subconscious impression which kept the book on my shelves for my 20s, 30s ,40s and (yes, I know…….) beyond. But sadly no more………………..
As I was reading it the book began to fall apart. After decades of being ignored the experience of being re-read proved to be too much for the book. The cover fell off, the glue parted company with the spine (Puffin! Are your paperback books not designed to last 40 years! Shame on you!) and by the time I finished with it the only place for it was, sadly, the bin. I did feel that the book let me down, both physically and emotionally but I will forgive Mr King and may very well seek out “Stig Of The Dump” for a re-read. I’m sure that many of you reading this will have had experiences of books that do not fulfil the reverence we gave them when young. Let me know these experiences, only don’t tell me that Leon Garfield was not what he was cracked up to be as that might be one too many childhood dream shattered!
“The 22 Letters” was published by Puffin in 1966. Interested readers can currently pick up a second-hand copy from Amazon (but look out for the glue on the spine) from 65p.